There has been a lot of discussion among fundraisers, both online and around the water cooler, about the CFRE credential, whether or not it has merit, whether it is credentialism run amok, or worse, a scam. While @CFREx’s comparison on Twitter of the CFRE to the sinking Titanic is a bit overblown, there are a number of reasoned critiques out there that do make some valid points.

Most recently, I read an excerpt from a book written by Jeremy Beer and Jeffrey Cain called The Forgotten Foundations of Fundraising. Cofounders of the consulting firm American Philanthropic, Beer and Cain lament the industry’s trend towards professionalism and credentialing, whether in the form of burgeoning degree programs in philanthropy and nonprofit studies, or certifications like the CFRE and ACFRE. They argue that professionalizing the field dehumanizes philanthropy, giving it over to a “priesthood” of the credentialed all in an effort to keep the great unwashed at bay. Professional credentials, they argue, stand as an impediment to a culture of civil philanthropy. Here are a couple of excerpts…

…The drive to professionalize fundraising and nonprofit management, to make it yet another field in which artificial barriers keep out the unwashed and benighted, from whom nothing is expected but deference, is consistent with the debilitating notion that an “expert” is anyone carrying a briefcase who isn’t from here…

…This point bears repeating: Credentials create barriers to entry. This is a problem for those who believe in a Tocquevillian notion of American civil society. Anyone, anywhere is qualified by virtue of being a citizen to raise funds in support of voluntary associations: churches, clubs, advocacy groups, co-ops, leagues, community centers, and so on. You don’t need a credential to undertake acts of good citizenship!…

There are some broad areas of this narrative with which I agree, not the least of which is that acts of good citizenship and caring for one’s neighbor need not require a degree or a professional certificate. That said, not all barriers to entry are bad. Fundraising is not open heart surgery, but I wouldn’t want someone who isn’t board-certified in cardiothoracic medicine to do my bypass. And the next time my team goes out to raise $25 million in capital funds, we will be quite happy to welcome our volunteers as equal partners in the effort. Likewise, we will also be happy to have some folks around whose knowledge, experience, and [gasp] professionalism go beyond ringing a bell at Christmas.

Elsewhere, the authors argue that professionalism constitutes a “flight from amateurism, from a philanthropy rooted in love and communal values…” This is where I have to get off the train. Are there selfish career-minded opportunists in the field who care only about their own professional laurels, whose philanthropic activity is not “rooted in love and communal values?” Of course there are, and we can all name a few. But to imply that of the whole of professional fundraisers, and then to use words like “priesthood” as a pejorative seem to me more calculated at shutting down the discussion rather than fostering it. There’s an old Klingon proverb, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”

At a time when the nonprofit sector is beset on all sides by scandal and incompetence, are the efforts of professionals to introduce avenues for excellence and accountability really so nefarious? Professionals with credentials—that is, people who raise money for a living and have some formal training to show for it—are not barriers to anyone unless they choose to be, and when they do, it’s not because of the credentials or the professionalism to which the field aspires. It’s because of their bad behavior and personal failings.

Professionals and amateurs need not be at odds with each other. As I look at the world and see so many areas of need, I find that there is plenty of work to go around for everyone, credentialed or not. False dichotomies like professional=bad, amateur=good are not helpful.

Perhaps a better question is this: how can those who have made fundraising their profession be supporters of civil engagement? How can credentials and professionalism be best utilized to empower everyone—professional and amateur alike—to achieve the best possible outcomes for the causes they care about?

Next week, I’ll share a few thoughts about my own CFRE credentialing process, how I felt about it, and an honest assessment of what I think are its merits and shortcomings.

Question: Do you think credentials and professionalism are hampering civil engagement in philanthropy? Why or why not? Leave a reply below.

Posted by Mark Zobel PhD, CFRE

I help nonprofits accomplish their missions and achieve their visions for a better world through donor-centered fundraising and comprehensive development work.


  1. […] seventh tenet of the Donor Bill of Rights seems to me to occupy a somewhat slippery slope, insofar as much well-conducted fundraising is done by people who are not […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s